Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Spike Spiegel (Koichi Yamadera) and Jet Black (Unsho Ishizuka) are bounty hunters and the sole crew of the spaceship Bebop. The show opens with plenty of questions as to their backgrounds and relationship, not least in the intriguing noirish flashbacks we see featuring Spike. The pair live in a precarious financial situation, chasing bounties that just about ensure they have enough food to live. Their crew is later expanded when they unwittingly come into posession of a Shiba dog with  expermentally enhanced intelligence named Ein; and later a woman on the run from serious debts named Faye Valentine (Megumi Hayashibara). Their motley crew gains another member when an orphaned super-hacker named Edward (Aoi Tada) joins them.

The strength of “Cowboy Bebop” is in its blend of genres, part-noirish crime thriller, part-western, with elements of science-fiction and comedy. This allows for a variety of storylines and the majority of episodes are stand alone, both narratively and thematically. The stories are fast-paced, necessarily so as they set up fresh villains, problems, concepts, worlds and solutions in the space of a single episode. There are a few episodes that could be considered throwaway or filler, such as the horseriding bounty hunter, but the majority do a great job in creating a novel challenge and cast of secondary characters that keep things interesting. One unusal aspect of the characters is that they seem quite isolated from themselves, more so than the usual odd couple relationship, they are simply five individuals who happen to be thrown together and the series only briefly touches on the relationships between them. Some of the best episodes are those that uncover the backstories of Jet, Spike and Faye, as these give a much-needed emotional counterweight to the visual bombast of gunfights and chase sequences.

From the opening double-bass strains of the theme song, the “Cowboy Bebop” score perfectly captures the atmosphere of a space western, with a fusion of twanging guitars and jazz. Most episodes have a musical link in the title and the score is clearly a huge part of the enjoyment of the show, giving it a sense of style and paying homage to great science fiction and western films. The visuals likewise exudes cool, with instantly recognizable characters whose design speaks to their character. It is also fun to note references to contemporary brands in the backgrounds. The animation of the fight sequences is one of the highlights of the series, with an incredible sense of movement and danger. This is helped immensely by some stunning editing that bolsters the frenetic sense of danger. All parts work in tandem, the design, editing and score, to create something that is eye-catching and engaging.

“Cowboy Bebop” gives us a future that is far from utopian, using its platform to comment on contemporary societal problems with a depressing prognosis that things are not heading in a postive direction. We see ecological catastrophe in the shape of asteroids that have decimated the planet earth; the ills of privatised medicide and unscrupulous companies; corruption rife in the government and police systems; and overall a lawless society where morality is ever shifting. References to both science-fiction and western genres, representing the future and the past, further emphasises this sense that humanity is doomed by the same weaknessess that have dogged its past, such as greed, crime, and selfishness. Despite advances in technology in the show, the society itself has failed to progress, with outlaws, bandits and criminals still barely kept under control, and an almost imperceptible line between bounty hunting vigilantes and offical law enforcement. This focus on time also plays a prominent role in Faye’s story and asks interesting questions on who we are and where we are going. Faye, suffering amnesia, is perhaps the best representative of the show’s philosophy as a whole, with no idea of either her past or her future. Human’s in “Cowboy Bebop” are simply buoyed along by the vicissitudes of fate, struggling against a deeply unfair system. A fantastic action sci-fi western with bags of charm, enjoyable characters, and a pointed satire on contemporary society.

Black Fox: Age of the Ninja (2019) by Koichi Sakamoto

A historical live-action spin-off/prequel to the anime film “Black Fox”, the story takes us back in time to provide an origin myth for the titular hero. We are thrown straight into the action with Miya (Maimi Yajima) running for her life from the Negoroshu clan who killed her father. She manages to find the Foxes, a group of ninja warriors, whom she begs for help in getting revenge. Among the Foxes is Rikka (Chihiro Yamamoto), the grand-daughter of their leader, whose aversion to killing makes her something of a pariah in the group, despite her heritage. We discover that the Negoroshu, led by Lady Haku (Mami Fujioka) are looking for Miya to obtain her magical abilities to emit electricity, frazzling her enemies. They are working for Shigetsugu (Yuki Kubota), who is under the command of by the evil Lord Burado (Hideo Ishiguro).

“Black Fox: Age of the Ninja”, written by Naoki Hayashi and directed by Koichi Sakamoto, provides comic-book action, with a simple story, magical powers and over-the-top theatrics. There are few surprises here, with it being a straightforward battle between good and evil, and little depth to the characters, who fall into either the likeable hero or nefarious villain roles. The script likewise has some on-the-nose dialogue with characters spouting exposition about events, and comic asides that give the feel of a live-action manga. The film is clearly aimed at a younger audience, with bloodless fight sequences, and inclusions of the Black Fox’s CGI enhanced special 9-tailed attack move firmly establishing it as a fantasy depiction of the ninja. The fight choreography is well-done, with energetic camera work and all of the performers selling the action. It is a case where the interludes for story are something that has to be patiently waited through until the next set-piece brawl. These fight sequences are worth it though, showing off the abilities of the cast, as well as a mix of techniques, with Chinese-style swordplay alongside ninja-type attacks, the characters relying on trickery and wiles rather than brute strength.

The story’s twin protagonists, Miya and Rikka, both embody the image of young women determining their own path. Miya has been sheltered by her father, ostensibly to keep her from harm, though we later learn that she has been lied to and exploited. Rikka meanwhile lives in the shadow of her grandfather, and her deceased father, having to choose between the warrior code of one and the peaceful, non-violent approach of the other. While it is not a film that attempts to reinvent the wheel of historical action cinema, it does what it does well, delivering some excellent fight sequences and an all-ages story of good triumphing over evil.

The Fable: The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill (2021) by Kan Eguchi

Following on directly from the first “Fable” film, we find the legendary hitman (Junichi Okada) living under his secret identity of Akira Sato in Osaka, alongside his associate posing as his sister (Fumino Kimura). He is still working at the design company alongside Misaki (Mizuki Yamamoto) and Kainuma (Masao Yoshii). Sato’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of Utsubo (Shinichi Tsutsumi), a former target who is now running a non-profit organization for disadvantaged children as a front for his criminal activities. Four years ago Fable took down five members of his group, but was called off killing Utsubo himsel. Utsubo is out to avenge his brother’s death. Sato is also reunited with a young woman, Hinako (Yurina Hirate) who he saved from the gang, but whose spine was damaged in the rescue.

“The Killer Who Doesn’t Kill” is an enjoyable follow up to the first film, delivering the same mix of action and comedy. The first film had its problems with uneven tone and pacing, neither of which are fixed here. Essentially this sequel succeeds and fails in all the same ways as the previous film. The film recycles several weak gags, such as the Jackal Tomioka and hot food elements of Fable’s character, and again the odd blend of slapstick alongside genuinely gruesome killings and abuse is often hard to reconcile. The opening action sequence is incredible and there are some highly entertaining and inventive action moments, with use of extreme slow-motion to show Fable’s incredible reflexes. The film often seems at a loss when outside of these action moments, struggling to know exactly what to do with the characters, who are largely stereotypical action heroes or villains. The story of Hinako is a welcome addition, adding some much needed emotion and the way the characters backstories are intertwined is interesting. This time there is far more of a connection to Fable’s past and therefore it feels far more meaningful. Yoko is also given more to do in this film, showing her own martial prowess.

Fans of the first film will enjoy this and it delivers some fantastic fight scenes and action. It is hard to see why they wouldn’t simply go for a straight-up action film, retaining some of the better character-led comedy while removing the sillier elements. It’s a missed opportunity as taken individually there are some incredible scenes, but it often feels like two distinct films spliced together, one an ultra-violent and stylish underworld thriller and the other a wacky comedy. Overall, the film is an improvement on the first and certainly has elements to recommend it despite its flaws.

The Fable (2019) by Kan Eguchi

An elite hitman (Junichi Okada) is asked to lie low for a year with strict instructions not to kill anyone in this live-action manga adaptation from Kan Eguchi. Following a mission in which he takes out an entire group of rival gangsters, the man is given the new identity of Akira Sato, and along with his partner (Fumino Kimura), now renamed Yoko Sato, they  are relocated to Osaka. They are told they must lay low for a year and not kill anyone, or do anything to raise suspicions. While under the protection of another mob boss, Ebihara (Ken Yasuda), “Sato” soon finds himself drawn back into the world of gang violence and vendettas when Ebihara violent brother Kojima (Yuya Yagira) is released from prison and begins stirring up trouble. Sato is also targetted by two ganstgers who know him as the urban legend “Fable”, who believe that taking him out will assure their own legendary status. While attempting to remain inconspicuous, Sato begins work at a design agency, falling for his co-worker Misaki Shimizu (Mizuki Yamamoto).

Based on a popular manga series by Katsuhisa Minami, with a screenplay by Watanabe Yusuke, the story of a hitman who is ordered not to kill has a lot of potential, but unfortunately this film rarely makes the best of its premise. The opening sequence, featuring a fun, ultraviolent takedown of a group of gangsters by a balaclava clad gunman, is well-shot and ramps up the excitement. A subsequent fist-fight, in which Sato must pretend to take a beating while actually being completely in control, is one of the best examples of the blend of comedy and action the film is aiming for. However, a lot of the jokes fall flat. For every solid character-based comedy moment, such as this fight or the former killer’s attempts to reinvent himself as an artist, there are weak running gags, such as his aversion to hot food and his love of childish comedian Jackal Tomioka that make little sense and serve to undermine any potential threat or tension. It is a fine line to tread between comedy and action, and this film pushes both to extremes with sexual violence and brutal stabbings sitting uncomfortably alongside the slapstick humour. The action sequences are enjoyable, but slightly undermined by the sense that “Sato” will never be killed or even seriously injured. It is a cartoon world, with exagerrated stereotypes, that struggles to maintain tension or establish emotional connection to the characters.

“The Fable” is a comedy-action film that fails to fully satisfy as either. It is a shame as the action sequences where things fall into place give a glimmer of what could have been, but the tonal inconsistency sadly let it down. The cast do a reasonable job given the script, playing up the larger-than-life characters, but again they struggle to resonate on more than a superficial level, mostly conforming to stereotypes such as the undercover hero, the love interest, or the psychopathic villain. The film works as a slightly silly action story, with a few stand out scenes, and is never outright bad, but rather underwhelming.

Battle Girl The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay (1991) by Kazuo Komizu

After a meteor lands in Tokyo Bay, the chemical reaction causes parts of the population to turn into zombies. A blockade is placed round the area and the ground defence force take control of the city. While they scramble to create an antidote, Keiko (Cutie Suzuki), the daughter of an army colonel, is brought in to help rescue any survivors. She later comes face to face with the Fujioka (Kenji Otsuki), the leader of the ground defence force, and his sinister plans.

Written by Hitoshi Matsuyama and directed by Kazuo Komizu, “Battle Girl” is classic B-movie fare, with an outlandish premise and predictable plot that serves only to move the characters from one action scene to another. The film is self-aware enough to realise its inherent silliness, often leaning into it, for example having Keiko lift a man by the neck upside down, or a zombie that is diced up into pieces. Cutie Suzuki, a pro-wrestler before starring in this film, has a great presence, clearly familiar with portraying a tough character. It is perhaps surprising that the use of her skills as a fighter is quite limited, with only a few moments showing off wrestling moves. For the most part she is a generic action heroine. Despite the predictable plot, the film throws in enough elements to keep things engaging, such as the ‘Battle Kids’, a group of young survivors who have teamed up to try and escape the city, and the ‘Monsters’, a group of thugs charged with preventing Keiko discovering Fujioka’s secrets. The action scenes are engaging, again benefitting from having a wrestler in the lead role, and the decapitations, explosions, and gun fights ensure there is rarely a dull moment. There are a few laughably poor special effects, understandable given the small budget, using obvious dummies; but for the most part the gore is good. Where the film does excel is in creating an eerie post-apocalyptic environment, with sparsely furnished industrial settings giving a sense of desolation and decay. The ambient score likewise emphasises this threat-laden atmosphere. There are a couple of strong visuals and scenes in the film too, particularly when Keiko confronts a group of zombies, and the plot builds to two fantastic large scale sequences of zombie assaults on the survivors.

On the whole, “Battle Girl” is a fun, fast-paced, action-horror, with an entertaining turn from star Cutie Suzuki. The themes of corrupt officials and military personnel, the dangers of radiation and scientific arrogance are familiar to the genre and the plot will not surprise fans of this type of story. However, there is some genuine artistry here in the stylish direction, soundscape and set design that make it worth a watch.